Control and Order, Wonder and Chaos

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March 2, 2010

My pantry was infested with moths. I knew we had to get rid of them but I don’t like killing anything, so I watched uneasily as my husband, David, smushed their little bodies, leaving black smudges on the pantry walls. The cocoons were hidden in the folds of plastic bags and under the lids of glass jars, and David would hunt them out, peeling away the silken threads. The worst was when he found a larva free of threads, inching its pink body along a bag of food. David would toss those, still alive, into the garbage.

As it happened, several weeks earlier I had bought our children a kit for raising butterflies, which included a mesh cage and a mail-order coupon for caterpillars. The painted-lady caterpillars were sitting in our living room in their plastic mailing container, having arrived two days before we discovered the moth infestation. Some of the caterpillars were already forming chrysalides, with silken threads that looked very much like the cocoons in the pantry. But the chrysalides we would soon transfer to the mesh cage, where we would witness their metamorphoses and then set them free.

We human beings like nature to be tidy. We like larvae in cages; we don’t want them in our pantry. We like nature preserves with defined boundaries; we don’t want mountain lions wandering off the preserves into our towns. We are terrified when storms leave the oceans and pummel our cities. We are uncomfortable when people are born with eleven fingers instead of ten or two sets of genitalia instead of one.

Perhaps for this reason, Judaism is full of references to God as the Creator of order. God is “the Separator between sacred and secular, between light and dark, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of creation.” In the beginning, before the world had people to define and record, all was tohu va’vohu – like the silk threads of moths that know no limits, like blizzards or interstellar dust. Piece by piece, the God who speaks in human language shaped that chaos. He separated dark from light, the seas from the heavens, land from water.

The Creator shaped a person from the dust. And that person continued God’swork, separating and fashioning. Replacing forests with lines of fruit trees. Turning the great plains of wild grass into squares, circles, and rectangles of corn fields. Crisscrossing the earth with roads and houses. And all along praying to the God “who separates between day and night, the Lord of Hosts is His name.”

God’s Order, My Mess?

This Lord of orderliness troubles me, maybe because I am a messy person. Keeping my meat dishes apart from my milk ones challenges my disorganized soul – and don’t even talk to me about Passover! I am shamed by a famous passage in the Talmud that warns about the bad and good angels that visit every Jewish home on Friday evening. If they see a messy house unprepared for Shabbat, the bad angels pray that the next Shabbat be the same, and the good angels are forced to say “Amen”. But if they see the table set, the bed made and the candles aglow, the good angels bless the family and the bad angels are forced to say “Amen”. (TB shabbat 119b)

Underlying this passage is the true observation that on Friday night, a white tablecloth and crystal wine glasses can help bring a taste of the divine. But so can the sweaty, crazy crowds of dancers on Simhat Torah. And when I really need to connect with God, I head to a nature preserve, where trees grow scattered and pine cones and leaves and animal droppings are free to lie where they fall. To quote Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things—

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

  For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Is God really the Master of order and control, as many Jewish sources suggest? Or is it humans who crave order and try to impose it on God’s chaotic world?

God’s Mess, My Order

In physics terms, disorder is called “entropy.” A disordered or “high entropy” system has many states available to it, and an ordered or “low entropy” system has few states. Consider my kids’ bedrooms as examples. A disordered bedroom can come in many different states; different toys can be in different places anywhere on the floor. However, when the room is in order, the toys can only be on their proper shelves. Order requires limits and control, while disorder is boundless.

The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of the universe can only increase. Nature prefers states of disorder. A ceramic statue may takes days of an artist’s work, yet is broken in an instant. A forest hundreds of years old burns to ash in a week. In essence, the second law of thermodynamics quantifies a concept that we already know from our daily experience: how much harder it is to create order than to create chaos! If God’s will is expressed through the natural laws, then physics has an answer to my question: God likes disorder.

But if God’s ultimate will is the creation of life, biology may have a different answer for us. Life requires a profound amount of order – almost a miraculous amount of order. In every cell in your body, there are 3 billion DNA base-pairs, and in each one the order of As, Ts, Gs and Cs is the same. The cell is spatially organized, with distinct compartments, structures, and regions, and it is temporally organized, with events that must occur in particular sequence. The body is also spatially organized: skin tissue, layered on muscle tissue, layered on bone tissue, and so on. And the temporal organization of a developing fetus, or even a growing child, is astonishingly precise.

The existence of life may seem to defy the second law of thermodynamics. It does not. Every biological process that creates order uses energy. Burning energy creates a greater amount of disorder elsewhere (for reasons that are too complex to explain here). The result: every tidy little bundle of life increases the disorder in the universe at large. By analogy, when my children and I bake a cake, we get 9 x 13 inches of sweet orderliness and a great mess in the kitchen.

The account in the first chapter of Genesis offers a glimpse of a deep truth. To create the world, and especially to create life, God had to tame one corner of chaos. Most of the atoms and molecules that compose our universe are chaotic and heading towards greater chaos, but the earth is teeming with bundles of well-ordered organics.

Needing Order

At some level, our ancient ancestors were aware of this last concept. They knew their world was dangerously chaotic, and they knew that living creatures – and human beings in particular – needed order. Though the Bible and early rabbinic sources prefer to emphasize God’s creation of order, they also indicate that God is responsible for the forces of chaos.

The word “teva,” nature, does not appear in the Bible or Talmud. Mountains, rivers and forests, fields of barley and gardens of roses: all are part of ha’aretz, God’s land. When God commands it, the mountains stand still as they should, the rains fall in their seasons, and the fields produce food. And when God commands the opposite, the mountains tremble, the rains may cease or flood, the inhabitants of the land suffer.

As understanding increased, people needed a word to differentiate the parts of their world they could predict from those that were beyond them. The word teva developed during medieval times. It comes from the same root as “matbeah”, stamp or coin, because originally teva alluded to that which is regular and reliable in nature. The sun rises, the sun sets. Almond trees bloom in the month of Shvat, and are ready for harvest in the month of Tishrei.

Reb Nosson, student of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, disparaged the concept of teva. What arrogance of humanity to think that we can understand or control our world, he felt. “The blessing of ‘Brings forth light and creates dark’ testifies every day anew that the Holy One himself created the light and the dark, the day and the night … and there is no teva at all.” In Reb Nosson’s eyes, every sunrise is a miracle, for God must renew His creation every morning. Believers in teva have had “the day darkened upon them,” for they believe in an automoton world, absent the Godly spark. (Lik. Hal., O”H birkhot hashakhar 5:28). Like the ancients, Reb Nosson saw God as responsible for both the apparent order and disorder of our world. But whereas the ancients feared the disorder, in the 19th Century Reb Nosson was feeling the threat of an over-controlled world.

Today, the connotation of “teva” has flipped, as the omnipotence of God has receded in the face of science and technology. “Natural” no longer stands opposed to “divine,” but to “artificial.” Teva is wild and free, like gurgling brooks and rushing rivers; its opposite is human-built, like the network of pipes that brings fresh water to our homes. God’s presence may be felt in both, or in neither.

Seeking Chaos

Our forefathers prayed for God to show Himself, because they knew He existed and they needed Him to limit the great forces. They modeled their own lives after the divine ideal of order and control. Shabbat structured the overwhelming flow of time. Laws of marriage and family purity gave some control over sexuality. Regular prayer not only structured the day, but also connected each person to the Great Source of Order, the One who could stop earthquakes or create tsunamis, as He chose.

Many of us today long for God to show Herself, because we are not certain She exists, and we want Her to open us to limitless potential. Environmentalism is a religion for many, and with good reason. We crave the awe, the overwhelming humility that many of us find in the unpredictability of nature. When we can control the first creation – light from dark – with the flick of a switch, when we know that earthquakes are caused by plate tectonics and we can check the internet to find out tomorrow’s weather, the God of order and control does not evoke the same level of awe as He did in the days of old.

And yet, chaos is not pretty, today any more than in days of old. We still want the lions to stay within their boundaries and the hurricanes to stay away from our cities. We want a sense of mystery, but within our controlled world. We want our minds and souls opened to limitless, when our bodies are safe within the four corners of our homes.

Even as we long for wonder, it remains our nature – teva ha’adam – to seek out order. We make appointments and keep calendars; brush teeth at a particular time of day; match the color of our shirts to our pants; sleep in the bedroom, eat in the kitchen and defecate in the bathroom. Each person must find a balance in her own life, between that need to control her surroundings, and that other need, equally strong but oh so more scary, to let go of control and trust in the Greatness that is out there and within ourselves. Though the balance of needs has shifted since ancient times, it is still in that balance between control and mystery that Judaism has its most powerful effect.

Jewish practice works with our human need for order, and uses it to open us to the awe and transcendence that so many of us crave. Our observances demand order: shabbat, kashrut, daily prayer, family purity, shatnetz, the yearly calendar and holidays. By accepting these customs we bring order into our lives, but not an order that we created ourselves individually. It is an order infused with an awareness of something much greater than ourselves, an order that demands humility and a relinquishment of individual control.

I keep my meat dishes separate from my milk ones, even though it is hard for me to do so, even though the practice makes no sense to my scientific mind. But I carry an awareness of tens of generations of women and men before me who ordered their kitchen in the same way I order mine. In my most spiritual moments, I see the pattern of separations – meat from milk, Sabbath from weekday, chametz from matzah – as marking a road that reaches back in time to the generation that heard the heavenly voice itself.

Reb Nosson, in the midst of a discussion of one of the most order-imposing mitzvot – Passover – offers the following inspiration (ibid 12). “For a person who engages in financial business and profits by it, it may seem that the profit comes by nature (al pi ha’teva). But in truth, it is all through His guidance, Blessed Be He… by eating matzah and burning hametz, we merit to believe in that divine guidance.” That belief leaves us open: open to revelation, open to redemption.

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